If you were to ask someone of nationalistic bent about the most untranslatable concepts in his mother tongue, he would invariably include a word or short phrase that denotes homesickness (or the much lovelier German analogue, Heimweh, 'home-woe,' of which nostalgia is said to be a calque). He would grudgingly admit that while homesickness is the closest English term, the two words actually lie very far apart. "You cannot really render it as aching for home," he might say, "it is more the yearning to breathe the air in the manner of its natives, air that exists nowhere else." The truth is that nostalgia has expanded its breadth of meaning: now it conveys as much a feeling of missing home as a glorification of the past in the sacrifice of the present and, often enough, of the future – a future that drifts ever further away from those golden years. I have had many instances in my life in which I felt wonderful events, times, and friends could never be repeated, and I was dreadfully right. They cannot and we cannot. What we have in their stead is the sensation of loss and the hope that redemption will allow us to enjoy those moments for eternity. And that is why the preservation of the human soul is the most vital function of culture. I do not for a minute believe that those who worship money and fossils and the materiality of this green globe can ever feel nostalgia: it is, with true love and true art, the deepest of sensations, and it is far beyond their ken as beasts of the moment. Nostalgia for the innocence of one's childhood, of love's labors lost, of the sweetness of things, of books, languages, sunsets, summer evenings of unstinting passion, the headiness of wine and the eternal mystery of our soul's whims – all this makes for an exquisite banquet of memories. It may also make, in the event of proper sidereal alignment, a first-rate Romantic poet. Which brings us to this remarkable film.
We begin with an Italian countryside, something not terribly evolved from what you might find in this animal-slaughtering favorite, a green and brown realm of plain rusticity. At the conspicuous center of our landscape stands a tree, Tarkovsky's eternal hope for the world; to the right and somewhat above the treetop, a power line in the shape of the greatest symbol we have ever known; in the background hills or mountains swimming amidst the mist. Slowly a small European car puffs its way left, the Italian sinistro, and stops before a garden leading up one of these misty hillocks, and a young, voluptuous redhead emerges, her hair in endless knots, first speaking Russian then Italian. As she climbs up the hill through a wondrous garden, the man mutters under his breath that he "can't go on." But he does. He follows her, onward and upward, to a chapel to gaze at a fresco by this famed artist. There our redhead, an Italian by the name of Eugenia (Domiziana Giordano), does not ask the chapel curator, likely a priest himself, why women flock to see the Madonna del Parto – that question is very obvious, and would belong in a lesser film. No, Eugenia well understands the despair of a woman who cannot bear children, or a mother whose daughter cannot bear a grandchild. What she wants to know is why they pray in the way they do, so fervently silent, then in a chant that culminates in a release of a bellyful of sparrows from the Madonna's statue. "Why are women more pious than men?" she asks, not incorrectly. The man pontificates a conservative view of women's role – to birth and raise children with patience and sacrifice – and as she walks away in half-feigned disgust, he adds: "You probably just want to be happy, but there is something in life more important than that." Eugenia stops and returns her eyes to all the mothers gathered, all praying to the one Mother, all beseeching that one of their daughters may bear children, a request punctuated by the opening of the belly. She does not look on transfixed, but simply curious. She is curious about her motherhood, about ritual, about all things that get lost in modernity's fire of independence and self-assertion. And suddenly she knows what word is more important in life than happiness.
The Italian for that word, fede, is not known to her companion, the poet Andrei Gorchakov (Oleg Yankovsky), so she translates it for him as vera (вера). She does not, however, convey the information with any solemnity, but with a snicker, and for good reason: fede means both faith and a wedding band, and Eugenia's mind is definitely much more focused on the latter. They converse in Italian (his insistence) even though it seems evident Eugenia's Russian would be more useful; then we consider that Italian may be the one trump card she holds over Gorchakov's Russian wife in Moscow. Indeed, her red hair, her role as his guide to the 'overworld,' and her painful sexual intrigue all denote temptation of the sinister kind and could have led – again, in a far lesser film – to carnal exploration. Yet somehow we know that this will never occur. In one vignette the camera – and, in turn, we and Gorchakov – notice Eugenia's pneumatic curves for what seems like the first time. His sudden compliment that she is so beautiful simply filters a hormonal reaction, and there is often something about very pure and sacrosanct places that shunts minds onto different tracks. Her expression for a few seconds thereafter communicates every ounce of her desire, the entire timeline of her pleasure at the compliment, her arousal, her disappointment when his eyes still do not meet hers, her arousal again, and finally her resignation that even if he did mean it, his comment was probably not enough for them to sleep together. Gorchakov, a melancholy and fatigued creature, has earned this disappointment: he has come to Italy to comprehend why Pavel Sosnovsky, a late eighteenth-century Russian composer, forsook the hills of Rome and a blossoming career to return to Russia and his status as a serf. Some say Sosnovsky loved a Russian serf girl, but some always say that. Others merely aver that he missed his homeland and would rather die enslaved in his native element than live on in exile – one of the most common interpretations of voluntary exile in modern thought. Ostensibly a well-known poet, Gorchakov exhibits more interest in the sadness of the locales he visits – chapels, churches, villages, and finally, these baths – than in any scholarly pursuits. He has not come to discover Sosnovsky's motives, he has come to find his own. His silly joke in Russian to a little Italian girl who could not possibly understand him is one of Nostalghia's iconic passages, in no small part owing to the resonance it receives in its closing shots. Yet at the time it smacks of cavalierness and frivolity, not nearly as sad as later events reveal it to be. Which can also be said about the third tragic figure in our triptych, the eccentric mathematician Domenico (a marvelous Erland Josephson).
It is probably best not to divulge too much about Domenico's backstory, which explains why apart from his outstanding mind and his German shepherd he is very much alone in the world. I stand corrected, there is a third companion: his fede, which is so strong as to augment at once his mathematical reasoning and his emotional pitch. The world simply does not add up. One drop of olive oil (in another much-discussed scene) and another drop of olive oil do not equal two drops, but one bigger drop. What we can say is that as we have three characters, so too do we have three dreams. First, there is Sosnovsky's, recounted in a letter (in Italian) as to why he needs to return to his birthplace. Sosnovsky was supposed to write an opera for his lord, and there were statues in the park where the opera was to be performed. As he approached the park he became one of the statues, and instinctively he knew that if he moved he would be severely punished. Thus, for a moment or a little longer, he actually turned to stone, powerless, and then realized that this was no dream at all, but his own bitter life. And he also realized that he could not forsake Russia, and the thought of not seeing its birches or languishing in the scents of his childhood grew intolerable. Then there is Eugenia's dream, narrated to her Russian guest during a long monologue of frustration when it becomes clear that her desires will not be reciprocated. I need not describe it in detail; suffice it to say that it involves a worm in her hair that escapes under her wardrobe – the context suggests that she has already provided her dream with sufficient analysis. And then there is Gorchakov's dream, the dream he endures after he tells that little girl that little joke about rescuing someone from a pond. And what does he see in his dream? He sees himself as himself; he sees himself as Domenico; he sees churches and streets that were never his but somehow should have been; and he weighs the criteria on which we, consciously and unconsciously, base our notion of what is home. Many claim that for a poet home is his language, the world in which the gilded filaments of his conscience and intelligence fuse into the most sublime and elevated of human expression. So what does this have to do with birthplace or childhood? Haven't countless poets composed countless odes thousands of miles away from their natal fields? They most certainly have. But maybe it is better to ask whether those odes would have been written if those poets and fields had never parted.